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Investigators allege systemic, decade-long cheating in Atlanta schools

By Katy Murphy
Wednesday, July 6th, 2011 at 3:00 pm in achievement gap, investigations, test scores.

Have you been following the cheating scandal in Atlanta? Beverly Hall, the superintendent implicated in the recent state investigation, was named national superintendent of the year in 2009 by the American Association of School Administrators — in part, for her students’ rising test scores.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports today, the Georgia governor’s special investigators believe this behavior went on for as long as a decade:

Teachers and principals erased and corrected mistakes on students’ answer sheets.

Area superintendents silenced whistle-blowers and rewarded subordinates who met academic goals by any means possible.

Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children’s ability to learn.

For years — as long as a decade — this was how the Atlanta school district produced gains on state curriculum tests. The scores soared so dramatically they brought national acclaim to Hall and the district, according to an investigative report released Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal.

What do you think we, as a nation, should take away from this news? That it’s a mistake to reward or punish educators based on their students’ test scores? That it’s easier than you might think to game the system?

Are you surprised at the lengths to which top administrators went, according to the report, to meet their goals (and cover up their actions)?

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  • Katy Murphy

    I should also note that before the Georgia governor launched the special investigation, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution raised questions of cheating at 19 of the city’s public schools.

    Here’s one story the newspaper published in 2009, based on a data analysis:

    http://www.ajc.com/news/are-drastic-swings-in-165974.html

  • Nextset

    You know, this sort of thing is taught in Organizational Behavior. Elements of this are probably covered in Cultural Anthropology and other such college courses. Our grade school covered methods of propaganda (one of the Nuns was really into hating the Russians) and how to recognize it.

    My point is that educated adults or even educated adolescents have no right to be surprised at all about this. Watch for those saying they are “shocked” – that is not a genuine statement, or the speaker is just a moron.

    You cannot – cannot – create a high stakes testing systems where cheating is physically possible and not get cheating. There, I’ve said it again. And it’s not like you are dealing with the most honest people in the world, either. Of course they cheated – with great fanfare and with cheating parties. What part of “high stakes” do we not understand?

    Of course they cheated.

    It’s amazing that people continue to gull themselves about human nature and history repeating. People seem to love to fantasize that what we know to be true has magically changed to no longer hold water.

    For example, the death penalty opponents who cannnot understand that removing that helps bring forth death squads or lynching behavior following increasingly out of control gangland and criminal violence. Merely having it on the books and keeping a death row provides both a reason to plea bargain and a reason not to just kill anyone and everyone in your way (cops/witnesses/ex-wives/parents/annoying girlfriends). While it’s not crystal clear what will happen which day, we can say that removing the ultimate penalty from even being a possibllity will tend to produce a cruel and violent path for the criminality that is all around us in the cities today.

    Because prople really are rational and will do what makes sense. Cheating made sense big time for these people, it was easy enough to do and the benefits outweighed the penalties. When you remove ultimate penalties there is no reason for anyone not to go all out as long as they are breaking all the rules (and facing life anyway).

    Likewise, when crime reaches certain levels it’s really time to crank up the death squads. They’ll come from the establishment – who will have to cover it up because it’s the death squads, not the law, that will ultimately provide the only true protection if a city slips into anarchy.

    Death Squads are just a way of organizing the activity of Bernard Goetz. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernhard_Goetz

    So we will have taken a system that produced law and order through the first half of the 20th Century, and turned it into the Wild West with nightly shooting and stabbings in our urban areas, then go to government sanctioned killings – lynchings – because some liberals believe the government should never kill anybody.

    Right. They’d rather the mob, any mob, do it.

    Because liberals think everybody else should act as they wish us to act, not as men actually do.

    I know we are on education and the Atlanta Cheating Scandal. But all this is related. The Nationwide (try DC) municipal organized cheating in high stakes high school testing is a creation of government policy. The cheaters were only doing what was reasonably expected of them. Government knew they was supposed to happen which is why they carefully avoided physical checks and balances that could have kept it from happening.

    When we as a state, lay off cops, drop the death penalty while keeping unreasonably high penalties for sex crimes, 3 strikes, etc, the resulting wave of victim/witness eradication followed by crook removal is not going to be a surprise either.

    Anything goes.

    The investigation will not likely be serious. They always knew what was going on. The scores were statistical anomalies based on the student ethnic populations. People wanted a certain set of scores to prove what they wanted to be true about race and education. The teachers gave them what they wanted. The schools are not exactly about truth. They are about pacification and political correctness. Just like the USSR.

    Meanwhile, people who count are going to real schools.

    We blog about education here, but this scandal is going to be a precursor to much worse trouble in the real world of our city streets. If the government refuses to do it’s job for “political” reasons there’s a lot more havoc to come than just Negro Test Scores getting fiddled with. Try you-know-who getting shot down without any trial, and the government saying they have no idea these things can happen.

    They do know how these things happen. They made it happen.

    Brave New World.

  • Marcia

    For once I agree with Nextset–at least to a certain extent. This was completely predictable. When we back teachers and schools into a corner and make absolutely everything depend on these ridiculous tests that have little to do with learning and that destroy the spirits of teachers and students alike, then of course some will bend under the pressure. Is it right? No. Was it inevitable? Yes. I feel bad for those involved. Mostly this story makes me profoundly sad.

  • Steven Weinberg

    People reading this story should also be aware of an article in the June 8, 2011 Education Week, which reported that a “blue-ribbon committee of the National Academies’ National Research Council undertook a nearly decade-long study of test-based incentive systems, including the ‘adequate yearly progress’ measures under No Child Left Behind Act, high school exit exams, teacher merit-pay programs, and other testing-and-accountability initiatives….[and found] the approaches implemented so far have had little effect on actual student learning, and in some cases have run counter to their intended purposes.” (p. 1)

    Yes, putting more and more pressure on schools and teachers to raise tests scores will increase cheating. Heaping praise and other incentives on administrators who show tests score increases will lead to turning a blind eye to such practices or even lead to encouraging them. But more importantly, 10-years of evidence show that the entire direction of tested-based accountability is flawed.

    In a separate study, also in the same issue of Education Week, the National Center of Education and the Economy found that the nations that outperformed the United States on international comparisons do not have “grade-by-grade national testing, pointing out that such countries tend to use such exams sparingly, only at the end of primary and secondary schooling. The tests are closely linked to the curricula and carry stakes for students in terms of progressing, rather than being used for school or teacher accountability.” (p.6)

    Our nation’s obsession with high stakes testing is leading us in the wrong direction. It is time to reduce the amount of testing we are demanding and reduce the stakes tied to those tests.

  • John Garrett

    Professionally I am involved in helping organizations achieve better results: Six Sigma, ISO, etc. The mantra is whatever you measure is what you get.

    So the surprise to me is not the misconduct, but the fact the conspiracy was kept a secret by so many for so long.

    Beyond disillusionment, though, this story will increase suspicion of other historically underachieving student populations with high test scores. When those questions arise I hope folks will always err on the side of the kids and give them the benefit of the doubt.

  • L.K.

    In answer to your questions, yes it’s a mistake to use tests to reward and punish teachers and schools. No matter how difficult you make it to cheat, cheating will happen when the stakes are so high. Testing of students should be used solely for the purpose of evaluating students – what they know, what they need to know – so teachers and schools can determine the best course of instruction for each child. I am not at all surprised at the depths of corruption in Atlanta or DC. Careers, money, and pedagogy are on the line based on continuing improvement on tests.

  • Nextset

    We could move the tread further out and talk about what happens in certain hospitals – Martin Luther King – “Killer King” – inn Los Angeles comes to mind.

    When the government sets in motion these silly schemes – where they pit people against the odds and expect the odds not to overwhelm them – people can really get hurt. The government is not likely to care. But they will loudly proclaim how shocked they are when the blankets are pulled off the dead bodies.

    PC can actually kill you – when it runs into health care, or public safety – or national security. In the Atlanta fiasco it was only the test scores who could only fool those who want to be fooled.

    Just be sorry for those who wander into the county hospitals when those places are set up to wreck people. But then, the urban public schools are making disasters out of (large majority of) black children who in a stricter and more rational regime might have grown up to be employable and better able to make it in the Brave New World.

    The problem in Atlanta is not with the Cheating Teachers and Administrators, It’s with the Government who created No Child Left Behind and the unworkable framework of racial standards based on the PC fantasy that all are cognitively equal (and the scores had better reflect that or else).

    Of course they cheat, they are expected to. They’d have been severly punished if they didn’t cheat.

  • Nextset

    Here the Wikipedia Article on Killer King.

    I would take the position that the problems that hospital experienced were a result of the government deciding it was OK to suspend normal accountability, checks and balances and discipline in the name of PC/appeasement and their idea of racial harmony. Next stop, dead patients beyond normal mortality tables.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killer_King

    We’ve seen it with schools, hospitals, and public safety (ex. New Orleans Police Dept). Racial PC gameplaying hurts the people the government claims to be “helping”. We (that means the objects of government affection) are better off not to cater to any of it.

  • Nextset

    L.K.: No, it’s not a mistake to use tests to sort and deselect candidates for placement or graduation. Life is full of high stakes testing. There has to be a reasonable relation between the testing and the intended selection process. Then you make sure the test is honest – which is REAL easy to do.

    My point is that the Atlanta and DC cheating was designed into the system. It was always supposed to happen, some people just can’t open their eyes and see.

  • Nextset

    This is an example from New Orleans Police Department – where normal hiring quality controls were eliminated in favor of racial quotas.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoinette_Frank

    Because it just feels good to do this. At least it does to liberals…

  • Nextset

    I went to dinner tonight with friends who mentioned flying and dealing with TSA. I remembered this post. TSA is another perfect example of the government screwing the population for PC reasons. They provide false security while simultaneously harrassing the American Public with great relish. The heart of the problem is government refusal to profile (including racial, ethnic, religious and national origin) knowing it is rationally required for security, in favor of this system of “all people are equal” which has them molesting children and taking diapers off 90 year old invalids. We all know this is madness and will tend to allow a disaster – it’s all understandable when you see they don’t care about the results of their standards, it’s all about the PC. PC just feels good to this particular government.

    Same for the schools, same for the hospitals, same for everything the government is touching.

    I suppose the only solution is to minimize contact with the government – thus the trail of people that matter going to private schools, avoiding county hospitals and in the case of some people. flying charter and private planes. We did not have such a separation in US society 2 generations ago. This is a modern trend. It does not bode well for this nation or for California.

    We had less segregation in some ways before the civil rights legislation of the mid 60s. And there was no reason for anybody running public schools to systematically cheat on the state tests.

    Brave New World.

  • Gabby

    My take away from this is that I am not surprised at all about the cheating. It happens more often than we might want to know. Remember last year, when the Trib reported (in a front page story I might add) how Skyline and Redwood Heights were caught up in a cheating scandal? Although that was on a much smaller scale, it is the same behavior on the part of the schools/educators involved.

    Unfortunately, some people cheat, especially if they feel extreme pressure to perform well. This happens with kids on their quizzes, and apparently it happens with adult educators who are pressured to produce high student test scores “or else.” In my opinion, these types of high stakes tests should only be used to measure and evaluate student performance, not the teacher’s. What if a student comes to class hungry, tired from taking care of his siblings while granny is at work, high, or just plain terrified b/c she has just had to run to class to avoid being harassed by gang members? Unfortunately, that really happens (and yes, the girls have their gangs too, and they can be ruthless and vicious). Those types of situations (as opposed to the teacher not doing his job) might negatively impact the student’s ability to focus in class. So I don’t think that teachers should be punished or rewarded based on results on a high stakes test.

    I think testing/assessments are definitely important, but high stakes tests are just one way to measure how much students have learned. Weekly quizzes, calling on students in class to see whether they understand and can explain concepts, and looking at students written work in class are other effective ways to check for understanding.

    I read this article on line a couple of days ago. I immediately thought of my cousin, a high school teacher in Atlanta. I wonder if he was pressured by his administration. I sure hope not. I must call him to get his take on this.

  • Oakland Teacher

    Yes, the current system does not support student learning. High stakes testing is not the answer, but please be careful comparing isolated instances in OUSD schools to the widespread systematic cheating discovered in Atlanta. My experience with testing at several OUSD schools is that there is extreme emphasis on no variation from protocol: everything on the walls covered, “Just do your best” as the teacher response to any query, no materials out in classrooms, careful check-in/out of testing materials, etc… We live in fear of breaking protocol and ending up investigated. I have some knowledge of what happened at the OUSD schools mentioned and they were isolated instances of poor decision making by a new teacher who was not really aware of the implications, particularly at Skyline. It was not a systems problem.

    That said, I still think we need to dump the current system: it does not inform learning in any way and wastes a great deal of instructional time.

  • Nextset

    Oakland Teacher: I’m amazed that you really think that cheating is not a systems problem and offer the comment that “isolated instances of poor decision making by a new teacher who was not really aware of the implications…” caused the train wreck…

    A serious testing system is physically stuctured so that no “new teacher” can mess it up. Think of the way the Calif Bar Exam or the CPA Exam are given – try that for high stakes testing. They we have the example of the LSAT which I’d be more familiar with, or the related tests such as the MCAT.

    Believe me, if you want a testing system to have integrity, it’s not a problem to make it so. The first thing you do is not have it administered by anyone involved with the students such as the staff from that school or that district.

    My point is that the legislation behing NCLB is corrupt and irrational – and the testing that comes from it was designed to be cheated on. Without this cheating the testing would quickly reveal what we already know to be true. And the Educrats will lie cheat and steal to delay that day.

    And then we can talk about Municipal Elections and how honest they are, from Chicago to San Francisco. Gee, wonder why the democratic party frantically wishes to avoid positive identification of those casting ballots?

    Atlanta is no biggie. This “investigation” will be a whitewash. Only the clueless believed the test scores anyway. Ditto the unemployment stats and the inflation stats published by the various government agencies.

    Understand this: Things are actually much worse than the government will believe because their policies are fundamentally unsound.

    People do what they want. Why mess with what works? It’s not that USA municipal, state and federal government actually have any commitment to truth.

    Truth gets in the way of the Brave New World they are creating.

  • teacher

    Nextset is right. Cheating is systemic, not individual. My school is terrified to define and discuss cheating. Can you tell a student to go back to check a question? To what extent can you front load material that you know will be on the exam? What does it mean to have excessive erasures on an exam?

    The pressure is on and people feel nervous. So much so that, this year, the testing coordinator even accused me of having excessive erasures on the exams of two students, one of whom has never met benchmark and one of whom always has. I did not cheat. In any way, shape, or form. I will spare you the details.

    Ultimately the testing coordinator and my administration believed me. I was not written up. But I will not serve a community, even one that I have grown to love, if it means that my integrity will be wrongly called into question by someone who has never seen me teach. I am a professional and such action is hugely disrespectful. I am told to “Let it go.” That is not good enough for me. I would like there to be more intra- and inter- school dialogue about testing protocols, the definition of cheating, and the wisdom of valuing high-stakes testing above sound forms of informal and formal assessment that, every second, takes place in the classroom.

    Instead of accusing teachers of having excessive erasures, an alert testing coordinator would first check to see if there were a disproportionate amount of erasures from wrong to right answers. An alert testing coordinator would also not have personal friendships with any of the teachers whose testing s/he is overseeing. And an alert testing coordinator might interview the students whose testing s/he has called into question, asking if the students were ever told by the teacher to go back and erase answers or even why they were compelled to erase so much. (The responses would have been innocent and sensible, trust me.)

    That systemic cheating occurs is no surprise. People need to define cheating first (which might not even be as bold as erasures, but as subtle as asking a student to look over an error). Instead, people are afraid. Afraid that the game they have invested so much into is actually a big political and money-making sham. I end by posing the following question- might cheating and false accusations of cheating be merely symptoms of a greater illness: a system that 1.) values highstakes testing above critical thinking and creativity, 2.) oppresses certain groups of students and adults over others, and 3.) allows people who are not instructional leaders (i.e. the testing coordinator in my case) to make judgment calls on a passionate, dedicated teacher’s teaching/learning and integrity.

    The same conundrum seems timeless in our district and perhaps across the nation: the group ultimately being shafted for politics outside of their control is our children. It is such a puzzle because it makes no sense. Surely if all adults profess their commitment to our children’s education, then we would all have their interests in mind above all, not our own.

  • J.R.

    Teacher Posted
    “The same conundrum seems timeless in our district and perhaps across the nation: the group ultimately being shafted for politics outside of their control is our children. It is such a puzzle because it makes no sense. Surely if all adults profess their commitment to our children’s education, then we would all have their interests in mind above all, not our own”.

    Absolutely brilliant post!!!!!!!

    As I have stated before NCLB needs to be dropped, and be replaced by standardized adherence to high quality academic standards of actual lesson plans(classroom work),and focused remediation where and when needed. Some people are being paid while not performing their job duties, and kids are having to be remediated at the high school and Jr.college level. This is totally absurd and wasteful of time and talent.

  • Nextset

    We pretend to “school” the black students, they pretend to learn, and we pretend to test them.

    Then they get a pretend diploma from the diploma mill.

    They go into the workplace and just get laughed at.

    The joke’s on them.

    We were better off in 1964.

  • educator

    I worked in South Fulton County for 5 years ending in 2003. I started teaching in 1978. I could not believe the unchecked powers that the principals under which I worked wielded. One principal attempted to take Pre-k lottery funds from me to balance her school budget. The same principal used the cafeteria staff to cook for her pre-wedding party and assigned a substitute teacher to take over my classroom while giving me a new class. The next principal for whom I worked in South Fulton threatened a young teacher with dismissal for not dating a friend of his. She ended up leaving her position before the year was out. When I talked to people that had known him when he worked in Atlanta City Schools, I was told he separated from them due to stalking charges. He continued to force at least 5 teachers out of their jobs that same year, me included. I was hired by another school system, but at least one of the teachers was a first year teacher. I hope she recovered from a teaching career ruined at 21. I found out later that he was put on leave after over $40,000 was charged to the school credit card supposedly without his knowledge. He is now a principal in Seattle, Washington. There was only 1 article in the local newspaper about the theft. I assume he was not held accountable. I reported his unethical behavior at the time of my employment to county office officials and was totally ignored. I guess to acknowledge his guilt would be to acknowledge their own and leave them vunerable to lawsuits. How could this man pick up another principal’s position in Seattle, Washington? Who recommended him? Is he doing the same thing to teachers there? My lesson learned was Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. There needs to be a system of checks and balances over principals that will not backfire on the teachers. When students witness adults doing these things, what are they to think?

  • ExSanta Fe Teacher

    This is such a common thing it doesn’t even seem newsworthy.

  • J.R.

    It sounds like there is more corruption in the public school system than I thought. It sounds like we do not have enough fully mature professional people to run things. It’s a really pathetic system that is in place if corruption, cronyism, and borderline illegality can happen without consequence. It’s way past time to restructure this system of waste, fraud, and abuse.